Let’s catch up! Tell us about your time since SAS and what you’ve been up to prior to opening the Canine Connection.
I graduated from St. Agnes in 1977 so there is quite a chunk of time between that and my current vocation as a dog trainer.
After college, I was in the museum world for a short time and then started a career in sales following my father into the paper business. While he sold trainloads of paper, I sold boxes. I was with Crane Paper Company for several years where I sold stationery to retailers, museum shops, college bookstores, and fine printers. That took me from Alexandria to the suburbs of Philadelphia and then to Manhattan in 1989. I moved back to Alexandria in May of 2001.
I loved living in Manhattan. One of the best parts of that was living close to my sister Leslie Harris ‘79 and her family. I had the best of both worlds: city living and a Connecticut escape. I also had some very cool customers. I worked with Cartier, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s. And it was so long ago that there were many independent stationers and office supply stores that were also my customers.
Fast forward to moving back to Alexandria. As much as I loved New York I was ready for a change. The year before I left the city, in 2000, my parents had given me a young male Doberman Pinscher by the name of Blaise. I’d never owned a dog before and Blaise was a big one. I met so many people in that last year in New York. If you live there, get a dog. But, when my brother told me that he was giving up a dog-friendly apartment in Old Town I grabbed it, left Crane and Co., and moved back to my hometown. It was just time for me to make a change of scenery.
I started selling stationery and gifts to retailers and then of course September 11, 2001, happened. As we all started to recover from that attack, I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time and was hired by Caspari to be their D.C. metro representative. Caspari is famous for their beautiful paper napkins and plates, stationery, gift wrap, and Christmas cards. It was a great company to represent. I was able to meet more terrific customers like the National Gallery of Art, Hillwood Museum and Gardens, and many more.
Was there any particular experience in your life that motivated or inspired you to become a professional dog trainer?
Our current dog, Dempsey, also a Doberman Pinscher, remains my inspiration. We’d had the other dog, Blaise. I imagined that qualified me to train any dog, but as it turned out, it did not, and we did get help. We bought Dempsey from a “breeder” who never socialized the dog. Living in Old Town was very stressful for him. Dempsey’s training journey got me interested in animal behavior.
I became so fascinated that I started to volunteer at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria in 2013. That’s where I was introduced to positive reinforcement training. I was immediately hooked. Dogs of all ages and breeds would sit quietly in their kennels as people walked by and that behavior always earned a biscuit. Jumping and barking did not.
I was so relieved to learn there was another way to train. I’d grown up with the traditional methods that rely more on correction. And while those work, positive reinforcement works faster and is a heck of a lot more fun for the dog. There isn’t the potential for the fallout that aversive methods can lead to. Traditional methods work because the dog wants to avoid correction but science-based training works better because the dog wants to do the thing that will be rewarded. The opposite is also true. If the behavior the dog is offering doesn’t get any attention, she’s not going to keep doing it in many cases. Rewards can be food, affection, praise, or a good walk. The dog will want to do more things, more readily because it’s fun, so the dog and the owner enjoy each other more.
I started studying to be a professional trainer in 2017. I’ve been to four academies and have a level 2 certificate from Peaceable Paws. I was also fortunate enough to be an apprentice to and then an employee of Sandy Modell at Wholistic Hound Academy here in Alexandria. I taught classes and ran the Day Academy. I also taught private lessons.
That training helped me become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. In order to get that certification, I had to log 300 hours of training and pass an exam. To maintain that certification, I am required to continue my education, earning credits by taking classes, attending symposiums, and webinars. It’s a blast.
What is the most rewarding part of your career?
I love helping people and their dogs figure each other out. People become dog owners because they want companionship. Dogs are really part of our families now. But they are still dogs, and having another species in your home holds challenges. Working with a trainer can help everyone get in sync faster. Training with dogs is fun but the way they think and learn isn’t always obvious.
My focus is on something called Day Training. Rather than you having to carve out time to attend classes and do a lot of homework, I come to your home and train your dog in her new environment. I train your dog for you and then work with you to maintain that training. Don’t get me wrong, you will still need to reinforce the things that your dog learns but it’s much easier to maintain than to start from scratch. I am proud of my current certifications and plan to add more. I want to keep up with the latest behavior science for my own interest and to remain certified.
I concentrate on puppies and ‘new to you’ dogs. There are trainers that specialize in separation anxiety, aggression, and baby and toddler dog dynamics, and more.
Favorite SAS memory?
There are so many. Friends of course. There were so many wonderful teachers and coaches. It was a really encouraging community. I doubt that I would have taken part in as many sports or extra-curricular activities if I’d been in a different sort of school. The Ages of Man program was a big part of the curriculum then. That structure of relating art, history, music, and literature into their historical eras really made sense to me and painted a fuller picture of whatever era we were studying.
Anything else you'd like to share?
St. Stephens and St. Agnes is a great school in so many ways. I’m proud to say I’m an alum.